Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Oct 04, 2011 12:58 pm 
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A muzzled artist speaks

It may indeed not be a film. But it is something else: a statement about repression. The celebrated Iranian director Jaafar Panahi (Crimson Gold, Offside) chose this title because he has been prohibited from making films by the Iranian government. This is not a film because if it were, Panahi would be violating the mullahs orders. Apparently for supporting the protests against the reelection of Ahmadinejad, Panahi was arrested several times in 2010. Late in the year he was put under house arrest and officially prohibited by the Iranian government from plying his trade as a filmmaker for the next 20 years: no directing, no screenwriting, no interviews, no departures from the country. And a prison sentence is pending.

So This Is Not a Film, made by Panahi with help from the documentary filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb without leaving his apartment and smuggled out of Iran, it is said, on a USB thumb drive hidden in a loaf of bread, is an act of subversion and protest against his repression by the regime, not to mention the general repression of Iranian filmmakers. Nearly every Iranian film today is an overt or veiled criticism of the situation in the country. But This Is Not a Film is raw evidence of the deteriorating current situation in which one of the most prestigious of the country's directors can be silenced for nothing other than giving the nod to in demonstrations in which thousands of other Iranians were involved.

In post-modern art, ideas are exhausted or imagination is dead so the artist must try to make art out of nothing. But Panahi's problem is a more simple one. How do you make a film when you are prohibited from making one?

In This Is Not a Film, whose credits list it as an "effot" by the director rather than a "film" and gives Mirtahmasb as a collaborator but leaves all other staff names blank, things begin simply with Panahi having breakfast at a table and calling Mirtahmasb. The scene could be something by Elia Suleiman, the Palestinian director, whose situation of living under Israeli occupation is similar. In both cases, in the innocuous moment, you feel the walls around the walls.

Panahi asks his colleague to come quickly because he has something for him to do, and not to tell anyone where he's going. A phone message recorded while the empty bedroom is filmed says Panahi's son has set up the camera. This would mean Panahi is not breaking the ban, though he later does carry the camera, after Mirtahmasb leaves, filming a man who says he's filling in for the janitor (is he a government spy? If so he's a good natured one, even an admirer).

Events are somewhat random. First, Panahi talks to his lawyer on the phone. She tells him that it is likely she can get his prison sentence lowered -- to six years. But she thinks the 20-year prohibition from working will stick. He has waited for the response to the appeal for months, and is still waiting, but thinks the result may come at any moment.

Amusement and absurdity come when Panahi waters plants, tries to feed a big pet iguana called Igi, and fends Igi off when the lizard, suddenly friendly as a cat, climbs all over him as he tries to type. Further comedy arrives when a neighbor tries to leave off her little dog, Mickey. It's obvious Mickey and Igi are not going to get on and Panahi sends Mickey away immediately. But the sad heart of This Is Not a Film is Panahi's vivid attempt,as his friend wields the camera, to recreate the first scene of the film he was about to make when he was arrested. He puts tape on the floor to outline the small room of a poor girl whose religious family are barring her from going to the university. Panahi breaks down in the middle of this recitation and demonstration, saying, "If we could tell a film, then why make a film?"

Fascinatingly, Panahi also briefly talks about two of his earlier films, showing clips on a big flatscreen monitor. In the first film a young girl on a bus rips off her fake cast. She is an actress in a film, but she refuses to participate in the pretense that she is a little girl who got on a bus going the wrong way. The camera catches the filmmakers struggling as she throws off the cast, vehemently protesting, and gets off the bus, refusing to act any more. Taking out a DVD of Crimson Gold, Panahi shows a scene where the family is rudely treated by the jewelry shop owner and the main character (played by a real-life pizza delivery man) throws back his head and glares heavenward. Panahi says in both these scenes the non-actors took over and did the directing. He had not planned for the shop owner to be so condescending or for the pizza man to be so oddly dramatic.

Using unplanned elements is key even in the most precisely orchestrated films at times. But how much is "vérité" ever "vérité"? How much events like the iguana's antics, the phone calls, a food delivery, or the arrival of the university student subbing for the janitor may be pre-planned or orchestrated by Panahi himself as scenes in the film is uncertain. But for a film about nothing that is not a film, This Is Not a Film manages to be pretty lively. A background of the Dogville-like diagraming of the projected film about the poor would-be student and everything else becomes the sound of explosions, which turns out to be fireworks for Nowruz, Iranian New Year. These explosions are the background for Panahi's conversation with the sustitute janitor. And that conversation develops into the big set piece of the film when Mirtahmasb leaves and Panahi, after using his iPhone to film for quite a while (footage edited into the film), grabs the big HD video camera and gets on the elevator with him riding from floor to floor, gathering garbage.

The student/janitor tells about himself. He is a masters candidate at the Arts University. He works at many jobs. He tries to tell an extended story that keeps getting interrupted as he stops at floors and looks out to see if the tenants have put out their garbage. Eventually the lady from the lower floor appears and tries to foist Mickey on the young janitor. The way the young man walks off through a parking garage into the darkness with fireworks blazing nearby is a curiously moving finale.

It is likely that all this is very well worked out and yet it seems utterly casual. In either case it is a sign that Panahi's skill as a weilder of Iranian neorealist style, now applied to himself, has not diminished. And the aim has been achieved: of giving us a look at a filmmaker whose hands have been tied by an opporssive regime, and who refuses to be silenced.

Jaafar Panahi has been celebrated at international film festivals since his debut feature White Balloon won the Camera d'Or at Cannes in 1995. His The Circle, which is about a woman trapped in a world of Islamist opporssion, won the Golden Lion at Venice in 2000 and many other accolades. Crimson Gold, a sly study of class resentment, won the Un Certain Regard prize, again at Cannes, in 2003. Offside (NYFF 2006) again touches on the role of women in Iranian society, with wry wit and a realism that creeps up on you. It won the Silver Bear at Berlin.

This Is Not a Film (78 min.) debuted at Cannes in May 2011. It has had a theatrical release in France, and will have similar ones in Sweden and Australia and, apparently, the US. It has been shown at other international film festivals, including New York, where it was screened for this review. What decision if any has been meted out on Panahi's appeal to the court we do not know. Many distinguished international figures have protested Panahi's confinement.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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